Author Archives: John Boyd Macdonald

Birds of North Sulawesi

It’s more than six months ago that we were in North Sulawesi/Sulawesi Utara (Indonesia), so well past time that I posted some pictures of birds that we encountered there.

These pictures, from Tangkoko and the Tomohon region, highlight just a very small number of the many many bird species to be found in this lovely part of the world. Many are endemic to this area.

Thanks to our guide Pak Irawan Halir for showing us around and looking after us so well!

Sulawesi hawk-eagle
Nisaetus lanceolatus
Ochre-bellied boobook
Ninox ochracea
Red-knobbed hornbill
Rhyticeros cassidix
Ashy woodpecker
Mulleripicus fulvus
Scaly-breasted kingfisher
Actenoides princeps
Great-billed kingfisher
Pelargopsis melanorhyncha
Lilac kingfisher
Cittura cyanotis
Green-backed kingfisher
Actenoides monachus
Citrine canary-flycatcher
Culicicapa helianthea
Yellow-billed malkoha
Phaenicophaeus calyorhynchus
Blue-backed parrot
Tanygnathus sumatranus
Green imperial pigeon
Ducula aenea

Private W.B. Macdonald NX 84656

I’m still wandering through old family photographs and documents, piecing together images and information, trying to form some coherent narrative of my father’s life.

My father Bruce Macdonald enlisted in the Australian Army in January 1942. He was 19 years old, and he spent the next four years in uniform.

He was born and raised in Dubbo, third child of Kathleen ‘Marsie’ Samuels and Dubbo Mayor John Boyd Macdonald (after whom I was named…) Following a decline in family fortunes he left school at 14 and spent several years’ working as a jackaroo on remote properties in NSW and southern Queensland.

Nothing in his early life could have prepared him for the experience of war in the Asia-Pacific. He trained in Queensland, then saw active service in New Guinea, several islands of (what is now) Indonesia, and The Philippines, much of it on board the converted passenger ship HMAS Kanimbla.

Throughout those years of World War II he carried a photo of his sweetheart (later to become my mother) in his wallet. I like to think that her smile gave him consolation in dark times, some connection with ‘home’, and some hopes for a future after war. They exchanged frequent letters, some of which have survived, full of deeply romantic sentiment.

After the war he brought back a number of small photographic prints from places he visited along the way. I think – but can’t confirm – that he took them all himself. It’s certainly his unmistakeable handwriting on the back of each one, identifying the locations. Many are grainy and blurry, under- or over-exposed, but some of them really give a sense of what it might have been like to be there.

For instance, he was on board the Kanimbla on 1 July 1945, the day when Australian forces launched their largest-ever amphibious attack, on the Japanese-occupied oil city of Balikpapan. The Kanimbla was only there as a troop carrier, one of 100 vessels in the attacking force, and it left the next day after dropping off its cargo of combatants.

(He couldn’t possibly have imagined that, 71 years later, his son would be living in that same city of Balikpapan, in a house quite near to the ‘Red Beach’ where most of the Australian troops came ashore. )

“Landing at Balikpapan”

Much of the city and its strategically important oil refinery was destroyed by allied bombing, naval artillery bombardment, and in the fierce fighting which ensued from 1 July. The Japanese defenders were massively outgunned and outnumbered (by about ten to one), but they put up ferocious resistance.

Consequently, the casualty figures showed a similar discrepancy. By the time hostilities ceased, 229 Australians troops had died – along with over 2,000 Japanese.

In his Army-issue notebook, my father kept a meticulous record of his movements during these latter stages of the war. Over a period of just four months he was in Townsville, Moratai (five times), Balikpapan (three times), Tarakan, Leyte, Manila, Subic Bay, and Manus Island (twice).

His service record reveals other dimensions to his service. He was hospitalised several times, due to malaria and a “bone abscess”. And he was perhaps not a model soldier, being punished on three occasions for overnight “Absence Without Leave”, and once in 1945 for “Conduct to the Prejudice of Order and Military Discipline”. For this latter offence he was fined three pounds and “awarded 14 days’ C.B.” (Confined to Barracks). Unfortunately there are no details of what had occurred…

He left Balikpapan for the final time on 23rd August 1945, and landed in Townsville on 4 September. It was a shock for me to realise that just 14 days later (on 18 September) he stood in the little church at Glenroy (near Tumbarumba), getting married to my mother.

In the photos he appears happy, sort-of shy, sort-of proud, and quite a bit thinner than the 79 kilos that he carried when he enlisted. He was probably feeling rather disoriented too, and still knocked about by the malaria and dengue that he acquired in the tropics.

Nobody talked about PTSD in those days…

In any case he was only allowed brief leave to get married, as the Army had not quite finished with him – even though the war was over by this time. He returned to (non-combatant) service, and wasn’t ‘de-mobilised’ until 20 January 1946.

The day after he re-entered civilian life, and began the impossible task of picking up his life from where he’d left it four years previously, he received a telegram from his father, who was proud of his antipodean origins:


And perhaps also thanks from Australia…?

Postscript: in the subsequent 43 years of his life, he said almost nothing to us about his war years. And, apart from a trip to New Zealand, he never again left Australian shores. “I’ve been overseas. Didn’t like it.”

My father the jackaroo

Looking through some old family photos and documents. This from 80 years ago…

In 1939, my father Bruce Macdonald applied by letter for work as a jackaroo at Newinga Station, Talwood Queensland. He was 17 years old and had already been working as a jackaroo (trainee stockman/farmhand) for a some time.

The Station Manager replied, asking:

“What weight are you, can you swim a river in flood with or without a horse, can you crutch a sheep with hand shears, can you and are you prepared to kill a sheep or milk a cow if required run a horse up in the morning, muster sheep or cattle in rain hail or shine from flooded country & otherwise fall into line at anything asked to do at any time?”

I don’t know how my father responded, but he got the job, and was given princely remuneration amounting to 33 shillings per week ($3.30). In offering him the job, the Station Manager further advised:

“If you have a dog or two that are worth bringing bring them along”.

He worked there until March 1941, and left with a nice reference declaring that:

“I have found him very capable, energetic and most conscientious and truthful about his work and he also has a good knowledge of most station work …. Thanking you and trusting you will be in a position to put a position in his way.”

Birds of Halmahera

We had the great pleasure of travelling to the island of Halmahera (North Maluku, Indonesia) back in late March – early April this year. We only got to see a small part of this big island, spending the bulk of our time in the Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park. We certainly intend to go back and see more of this unique place.

Amongst other things, the island is famous for the profusion of birds and other wildlife, with many endemic species. Here are some of the birds we encountered during our visit.

Halmahera white-eye (Zosterops fuscifrons)
Invisible rail (Gallirallus wallacii)
Common paradise kingfisher (Tanysiptera galatea)
Blyth’s hornbill (Rhyticeros plicatus)
Wallace’s standardwing (Semioptera wallacii)
Ivory-breasted pitta (Pitta maxima)
North Moluccan pitta (Erythropitta rufiventris)
Moluccan imperial pigeon (Ducula perspicilata)
Paradise crow (Lycocorax pyrrhopterus)
Great cuckoo-dove (Reinwardtoena reinwardti)
Scarlet breasted fruitdove (Ptilinopus bernsteinii)
Moluccan monarch / Shining flycatcher (Myiagra galeata)
Variable dwarf-kingfisher (Ceyx lepidus)
Golden whistler (Pachycephala macrorhyncha)
Brahminy kite (Haliastur indus)
Black sunbird [male] (Leptocoma sericea)
Black sunbird [female] (Leptocoma sericea)
Moluccan scops owl (Otus magicus)
Halmahera goshawk (Tachyspiza henicogramma)
Goliath coucal (Centropus goliath)
Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)
Halmahera spangled drongo (Dicrurus atrocaeruleus)
Halmahera golden bulbul (Hypsipetes chloris)
Wallacean monarch (Symposiachrus trivirgatus)
Sahul sunbird (Cinnyris clementiae)

Mare pottery

Mare (pronounced “Marr-ay”) is a small island, just 3 km long and 2km wide. It’s located to the south of the bigger island of Tidore, in the chain of active and inactive volcanoes that make up the province of North Maluku, Indonesia. 

Mare Island

Unlike other islands of the province, it has no cone-shaped volcano towering over it. The soil is poor, and not well suited to agriculture. 

There are only two small villages on the island: the fishing village of Marekofo at the south-western end, and Maregam at the northeast tip. The whole island only has a population of around 1000, all Muslim and ethnically Tidorese people.

Approaching Marekam Village from Tidore

It might be small, but it’s famous for its rustic pottery, produced by women in the village of Maregam, and traded by the men all around North Maluku and West Papua. They make dozens of different products. In particular, Mare sago bread ovens (forno or keta) and bura cooking pots are found in just about every kitchen in the province.

‘Welcome to Marekam Village’

We had the good fortune to visit Mare back in April, and to see the processes used in this ‘cottage industry’ to make pottery. It seems like just about every woman in the village is a potter.

Everyone we met in the village was very friendly, and very happy to explain their work to us – and to be photographed while doing it.

It all begins with the clay, which is collected by men from Maregam from four different locations on the island, the closest being on the small clifftop just behind the village. 

They carry it down to the village and leave it to dry for a few days, breaking it up into lumps. From this point on all the work is done by the women of Marekam. There’s even a belief that if men touch the softened clay after this stage, they’ll become infertile!

The clay is softened with water, any impurities (gravel or vegetable matter) are removed, and it is mixed with black sand collected from the beach.

A ball of the soft clay is formed and thrown onto a flat working surface to make a disk, then roughly moulded by hand into the approximate shape of the object being created. For round forms such as bowls and the cylindrical ‘leg’ (known as a toro) of a forno sago bread oven, the shape is formed using a basic potter’s wheel.

Toro handle being shaped on the base of an upturned forno

Apart from fingers, a small number of simple tools are used to assist in shaping the clay.

These (shown in pictures above and below) are:

  • a wooden paddle (jako), used to slap the ball of clay into the rough shape of the desired object
  • a round piece of coral, to shape the inside of bowls and other round objects
  • a metal ring cut from the end of an old flashlight
  • a short piece of pineapple leaf or split bamboo, used to form a smooth curved rim on the top of bowls etc
  • a seashell (Anadara sp.) which is used to shave excess clay from the outside of objects

The use of such simple tools is one reason for the rustic and very ‘handmade’ finish which is a characteristic of Mare pottery.

Pots are then ‘slipped’ with red soil collected from the nearby island of Halmahera, dried in the sun, and then roughly decorated by rubbing lines and spirals onto the outside with a piece of black volcanic rock.

Bura lids, each with a cylindrical toro handle

The firing of the pots isn’t done in an oven, but with a fire in the open air. The main fuel used is dried coconut husk. Firing is done fairly quickly, and at a relatively low temperature, which contributes to the somewhat fragile nature of Mare pots.

Forno (sago bread ovens). A forno with eight slots like these is called a ‘keta marebe tofkage’

A small proportion of the pottery produced in Mare is sold at the Soacio market on the adjacent island of Tidore. Women carry as many pots as they can manage on the ferry to Tidore, then travel up the east coast to Soacio market by minibus,

Finished forno, ready for sale

However most of the pottery is loaded onto larger vessels by men of the village, who then trade around villages on the islands of North Maluku and West Papua until all have been sold. These journeys can take them away from Mare for weeks or even months at a time.

Bura, ready for sale

Some products are custom made to match the preferences of specific markets, varying shapes and numbers of slots in the sago ovens to suit local taste.

Cooking fish in a clay pot with a small bura pot for a lid.
Wheat flour and egg pan cake, made in a frypan with a bura lid. The bura had been heated separately in the fire before being placed over the pot, thereby adding to the heat radiated onto the food.

Sincere thanks are due to the people of Marekam Village, Pulau Mare, Tidore Selatan, Maluku Utara, for their generous hosting of our visit, and to our wonderful guide Pak Bahar for getting us there and managing all the logistics.

Note: Most of the facts in this post – and all of the photos – were collected during the course of our visit. But I must also acknowledge a debt to the great article “Technological choices among maritime potter-traders: The Mare islanders of Northern Maluku” by Akira Goto. (In Coexistence and Cultural Transmission in East Asia. Routledge, New York, 2011)

Halmahera mudcakes

Did you ever ‘bake’ mudcakes as a child? I don’t know whether Australian kids still do it – perhaps they have too many other less messy things to do. However, in at least one a village on the island of Halmahera (Maluku Utara, Indonesia) the craft is definitely still alive and well.

The floral decorations were a very nice touch.

The girls were at first a little embarrassed by our interest in their ‘cooking’, but laughed when we asked if we could eat some of the biscuits, and soon were showing them off proudly, and posing for us with their mothers.

Wallace’s standardwing

There is nothing ‘standard’ about the bird known as “Wallace‘s standardwing” (Semioptera wallacii). Actually it gets its name because the wings of the male bird are anything but ‘standard’. It has two long white plumes extending from the top of each wing which, when raised during display, vaguely resemble military pennants (sometimes called ‘standards’).

The Standardwing is a species of bird-of-paradise, found only on the North Maluku islands of Moratai, Bacan and Halmahera – which is where we encountered it. It’s named ‘Wallace’s standardwing’ in recognition of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in 1858 was the first European to describe it.

Back in April we witnessed this display in the Akatajewe Lolobata National Park on the island of Halmahera. We set out at 4:00am from the ranger’s house where we were boarding, trekking for two hours through primary forest along a partially overgrown path. At that time, and under the dense canopy, it was quite dark, and we certainly needed our headlamps to make our way through.

Sounds from the forest (tweets, squawks, whistles, rattles and hoots) hinted at an abundance of life waking up around us.

Along the way, we disturbed a Black-chinned whistler (Pachycephala mentalis) and a pair of Shining flycatchers (Myiagra alecto) who were asleep on branches beside the path.

Every dawn during mating season, a large number of male birds assemble in a treetop location and display their plumage, flitting from branch to branch in a frenzy, flapping wings, biting on the branches and squawking. This behaviour, which I now know to be called a ‘lek’, is either designed to impress the females (how could they resist?) or to establish a hierarchy of breeding rights amongst the males. Whatever the function – it’s quite a performance.

We watched and photographed the birds for an hour or so, enthralled by all of the action above. Then we paused for breakfast as the lek seemed to be winding down. But at that moment two male Standardwings began noisily fighting above us and, locked together in a tight wrestling embrace, they fell about 20 metres from the treetop and plummeted to the ground near us. One flew away, but the other was quite stunned by the fall, and we nursed it until it had recovered enough to fly away again.

But it wasn’t until we returned some hours later that we could appreciate the full grandeur the landscape through which we had travelled.

We finally arrived at a rocky knoll where the lek takes place, just as the dawn light was gradually brightening.

Our encounter with the Standardwings was a great and memorable experience, and well worth getting up for the pre-dawn hike. We were ably guided by Pak Bahar, Park Ranger extraordinaire Pak Roji and his son Anggie. Sarapan dibungkus (yellow rice, chicken, veggies and sambal) was kindly provided by Ibu Ena. Big thanks to them all for making it possible.

Coconut harvesting

Next time you open a can of coconut milk (or sip on coconut water or perhaps enjoy a lamington crusted with crumbs of desiccated coconut), spare a thought for the people who harvest the coconuts.

In some places, mature fruit is cut from the smaller palms (Cocos nucifera) using a long bamboo pole with a blade on the end.

In parts of Thailand, trained macaques are used to climb and remove the coconuts. In other locations (e.g. New Guinea) they often just wait for the fruit to fall naturally.

But in Indonesia, which is the largest producer worldwide, the usual method is for plantation workers to free climb to the top of the palms (which can be up to 25 metres tall) and cut the coconuts off with a long knife, dropping them to the ground below.

Safety harnesses are rarely used.

For copra production, it’s best to harvest the coconuts at about 12 months after flowering. So, to optimise production, each palm is climbed about once every six weeks.

The trunk of the palm has notches cut into it to facilitate the climb. But it’s hard and dangerous work, and serious injuries and deaths are all too common.